Pollution is the leading cause of death in low- and middle-income countries, according to a report from the Global Alliance on Health and Pollution (GAHP), an organization whose members include the World Bank, Columbia University’s Earth Institute, and various United Nations’ bodies and national governments. In 2012, pollution – in the form of contaminated soil, water, and both indoor and outdoor air – was responsible for 8.4 million deaths in developing countries. That’s almost three times more deaths than those caused by malaria, HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis combined. And the Ebola outbreak that had American legislators shaking in their suits, while ignoring more pressing national issues? Last year, fewer than 8,000 individuals died from the Ebola virus.

Belize has managed to preserve its natural environment more effectively than any of its neighbors in Latin America and the Caribbean. Nevertheless, the country still faces its own environmental pollution challenges, most of which are consequences of development projects and a growing population. There are currently seven major environmental issues, related in one way or another to pollution that impact Belize’s natural resources. While these issues are by no means exhaustive, they represent the most pressing matters. High deforestation rates, improper solid-waste management, polluted water, rapid coastal development, increasing poverty, weak institutional and legal frameworks, and the recent discovery of sweet crude oil all pose significant threats to Belize’s ecosystems.

Increasing incursions by rural peoples into Belize forests and protected areas for farming, hunting, and harvesting non-timber forest products have become acute in recent years and have contributed to the already high deforestation rate. In October 2007, an additional 13,000 acres of forests were illegally cleared in one of Belize’s largest and most remote protected areas. The mass removal of these forests results in sediment and heavy metal pollution to the watershed streams and rivers where the deforestation takes place. This pollution eventually reaches humans through the eating of fish and drinking water.

Belize produces approximately 200,000 tons/year of solid waste from household and commercial establishments, equivalent to between two and three pounds/day for each Belizean. While the amount of solid waste being generated per capita is low for the region, the inability to properly dispose of the wastes pose another serious environmental threat to Belize that is already causing health issues and land and water pollution, including pollution of Belize’s Barrier Reef System—a World Heritage Site and the longest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere, extending approximately 280 km along its Caribbean coast and covering approximately 1,400 km. The incapability of the country to properly dispose of solid waste is evident by the overflowing landfills readily observed from the nation’s highways. Currently, none of the landfills in the country are properly sealed to prevent the leaching of pollutants into ground water. The large amount of industrial waste generated by large-scale industries (citrus, sugar, bananas, tilapia, and shrimp farms) also ends up in the country’s landfills, which further compounds the problem. Solid wastes in landfills are frequently burned, a practice that is environmentally harmful with serious health implications, as well as added burdens to greenhouse gas contributions. And the import tourist industry is also affected by the solid waste litter scattered along Belize’s highways.

Likewise, the country is also unable to adequately deal with its liquid waste. As a result, inadequate liquid-waste management is contributing to natural-resource degradation in addition to rising health implications. Considering that the majority of Belize’s population and industrial activity (e.g., shrimp and tilapia farming) occurs in the coastal zone, the inability to properly treat sewage waste poses a continuing and serious threat to the marine ecosystem and the Barrier Reef System. At present, only three population centers have sewage waste-treatment facilities (Belize City, Belmopan [capital], and San Pedro); even in these municipalities, the majority of the residents are not connected to the system but instead rely on septic systems. The rural population relies on pit latrines and septic systems, with the latter becoming more prevalent. Though the majority of the country’s urban residents have access to potable water, a significant number of rural people (e.g., the Belize River Valley area) lack access to potable water; these residents rely on river, well, and pond water to meet their needs, which leads to a high incidence of gastrointestinal maladies among rural populations.

The liquid-waste issue is further aggravated by the large number of cruise tourists who visit the country annually. Since 2004, when the country took a noticeable shift from embracing ecotourism to preferring large-scale mass tourism, over 800,000 visitors now visit Belize shores annually, with all expectations that a million visitors will soon visit annually. This number of visitors represents a tripling of the Belizean population of 300,000 people. Not surprisingly, the country lacks the appropriate infrastructure (e.g., solid-waste and liquid-waste facilities) and an enforcement mechanism (e.g., monitoring) to deal with such a large number of visitors. Incidentally, the majority of cruise-ship passengers visit attractions within two hours of Belize City, most of which lack any sewage or solid-waste infrastructure to manage the waste left by tourists. In many instances, solid waste ends up in landfills where it is burned, while the liquid waste leaches into the environment.

People living in poverty in Belize only exacerbates environmental degradation from pollution because disadvantaged populations have more urgent concerns than implementing conservation and pollution prevention practices. Any attempt to conserve the natural environment in ecologically sensitive areas must include innovative solutions to improve the socio-economic conditions of the communities that buffer these areas so they can live more sustainably.

Rapid and uncontrollable coastal development for residential and commercial purposes is an escalating threat to Belize’s coastal zone. A recent study estimated that 75-80% of all coastal land in Belize has been purchased by foreigners who will develop the land into condos, resorts, or residential properties, usually at the expense of the mangroves and littoral forests. Not only are there direct threats to the coastal environments from the pressure on these ecosystems with their capacity to filter pollutants from the land, but the proximity of these developments to coastal waters causes one to wonder where all the domestic sewage is going?

In 2002, sweet crude was discovered in western Belize. With millions of barrels of oil in proven reserves and the expectations of millions more to be discovered, the number of prospectors has increased substantially. The oil industry, initially greeted with much enthusiasm within the country, now poses a new threat to Belize’s ecosystems. With the current price of oil, there will be tremendous pressure and temptation by the government to make the necessary legal amendments to the protected-areas policy to allow oil exploration and production at the expense of further destruction of forests and potential pollution of watersheds and the marine environment via oil spills.

Presently increases in demand due to expansion in the agricultural, industrial and tourism sectors along with a growing population and accompanying water pollution and watershed destruction make it imperative that urgent attention be given to the proper management, use and understanding of the natural resources of Belize, especially freshwater resources. The population growth of coastal communities will add other stressors to the marine and coastal environments, resulting from the inadequate management of sewage waste and solid waste. Ensuring adequate access to proper sewage treatment systems and proper solid waste disposal by the residents of the coastal communities will positively impact both the lives of the residents and the ecosystems they reside in making for more sustainable environments and a more healthy society.

In this regard, Belize requires a legal framework, new policies, management systems, and educational resources to address these issues at the systemic and institutional levels in order to combat pollution problems in a sustainable way before they become more expensive and unattainable. It is evident from above that many of the major issues of concern overlap and can only be addressed with an integrated sustainability approach. For example, people living in poverty will also be more likely to contaminate their environment with domestic waste, while improper land-use within watersheds will most definitely pollute related streams and rivers. Unless Belize is able to adequately respond to these challenges in a timely manner, the environment that has been the mainstay of the Belizean economy will be severely impacted.

Sustainability Now For Belize